I don’t date much. For me, dating has been more like going to a party, saying “Hey,” leaving and then texting at 3 a.m. to see what the person’s up to. The few “real” dates I have been on usually consist of a different kind of awkward moment: my date grabbing the check and not letting me pay. Before I become a self-identified feminist (and let’s be honest, I am still learning), I did not usually fight to pay. “Hey, free meal,” was my thought.
Once I started learning more about myself and my ideals, sexism suddenly seemed implicit in every situation. I realized that I hated dates because they made me feel inferior. Come on, I have a job and money; I can afford a plate of pasta. But I was almost always told, “No, I got this.”
A Psychology of Sex and Gender class finally gave a name to the thing that was bothering me: benevolent sexism. Apparently there are two kinds of chauvinists--hostile and benevolent. Hostile sexists fear that women are trying to take men’s status, so they oppress women to prevent them from gaining power. Examples of hostile chauvinism range from unequal pay to sexual assault.
The less-demonized form is benevolent sexism: the idea that women are gentle, weak creatures that need support. Men therefore carry groceries or open car doors for them, which seems gallant but is actually oppressive. These men place women on pedestals that define them as weak beings. Most forms of benevolent sexism are so fully rooted in our society that we barely see the harm. Men learn to be chivalrous gentlemen. “Appropriate” manners are passed down from generation to generation, but honestly, they are not that appropriate. But how to retrain young men who think they’re doing the right thing?
Recently, I broke a stereotypical gender norm. I decided to not let any male open a door for me, instead rushing to hold it for him. I spent an entire day getting weird looks and had a couple experiences where the guy would hesitate before going through. If holding a door open for someone is common sense, then why do people get so uncomfortable when I do it?
One of my closest friends has been dating her boyfriend for almost five years. She is studying psychology, interested in nursing and one of the most capable people I know. Yet every time she goes over to her boyfriend’s house, his father mentions that if she ever needs a tire changed or her oil checked, she should bring her car over and he or her boyfriend would do it for her. She’s a girl; she should let her boyfriend handle these “masculine” tasks for her.
The teenage years and early twenties are the time when young people learn what is or is not okay in relationships, what behaviors and communication styles work, what type of relationships we want. It can be hard, especially when almost every interaction includes benevolent sexism.
One time I was walking with few of my guy friends when a drunken stranger approached and hit on me. My friends gathered around and shuffled me along without giving me a chance to respond. Afterwards, one friend brought it up because he felt badly for assuming I couldn’t handle myself. While it was a slightly awkward and difficult conversation, we were able to talk about what it means when a man defends a “helpless” woman and how most of the time, we ladies don’t need “defending.”
Maybe what we all need to learn to do is embrace the awkwardness and the social anxiety within society because that way, we will be more aware of our actions and behaviors. When we find ourselves in a situation loaded with benevolent sexism, we should calmly acknowledge what is happening by saying, “Hey, I would love to pay for this one, or at least split the bill,” at a restaurant or even “This is making me feel uncomfortable” if someone tries to convince you a man could mow the lawn better. It is through conversations like these we can figure out ways to have equal friendships and relationships. If you cannot have these hard conversations with your partner or friend, maybe you need to re-evaluate that relationship.
We women can slay our own dragons and save ourselves. And hey, let’s take that next step: open the door for the guy and buy him his plate of pasta this Saturday night.